The Trump administration’s flawed plan to destroy the internet as we know it

“Section 230, the law that is often credited as the reason why the internet as we know it exists, could be facing its greatest threat yet. A seemingly coordinated attack on the law is unfolding this week from the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress. It follows complaints that platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube unfairly censor conservative speech. Though some are framing the efforts as a way to promote free speech, others say the result will be exactly the opposite.

Following President Trump’s executive order aimed at social media companies he thinks are censoring right-wing voices, the most direct actions taken against Section 230 arrived this week in the form of a new bill from Sen. Josh Hawley and a set of recommendations from Attorney General Bill Barr.

Hawley, a 40-year-old Republican from Missouri who has made no secret of his intentions regarding Section 230, is proposing a bill that would require large platforms to enforce their rules equally to stop a perceived targeting of conservatives and conservative commentary. Hawley is also rumored to be preparing another Section 230-related bill to add to his growing collection.

Meanwhile, Barr’s Department of Justice said it is calling for new legislation that, in certain cases, would remove the civil liability protections offered by Section 230. If platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter somehow encouraged content that violates federal law, these platforms would be treated as “bad samaritans” and would lose the immunity offered by Section 230. Like Hawley’s bill, the DOJ’s proposed rules would also force platforms to clearly define and equally enforce content rules.

Civil rights advocates say they’re concerned that some of these proposed measures may end up becoming law, leading to all sorts of unintended consequences and stifling speech — which will ultimately punish internet users far more than the websites.”

“Section 230 is part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. It says internet platforms that host third-party content are not civilly liable for that content. There are a few exceptions, such as intellectual property or content related to sex trafficking, but otherwise the law allows platforms to be as hands-off as they want to be with user-generated content.

“If a Twitter user were to tweet something defamatory, the user could be sued for libel, but Twitter itself could not.”

“If these sites could be held responsible for the actions of their users, they would either have to strictly moderate everything those users produce — which is impossible at scale — or not host any third-party content at all. Either way, the demise of Section 230 could be the end of sites like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, Yelp, forums, message boards, and basically any platform that’s based on user-generated content.”

“The consequences of changing Section 230 will inevitably change the internet and what we’re allowed to do on it. Ruane, from the ACLU, points to the impact of FOSTA-SESTA, which she says “has been a complete and total disaster,” and its unintended consequences as a guide for what we can expect. Faced with the new law, online platforms didn’t seek to target specific content that might relate to or facilitate sex trafficking; they simply took down everything sex or sex work-related to ensure they wouldn’t get in trouble.

“It was only supposed to apply to advertisements for sex trafficking. That is absolutely not what happened,” Ruane said. “All platforms adopted much broader content moderation policies that applied to a lot of LGBTQ-related speech, sex education-related speech, and … sites where [sex workers] built communities where they shared information to maintain safety.””

“laws that force platforms to be “politically neutral” may not encourage more speech, as conservatives who favor those laws claim, but rather suppress it. Facebook has taken a similar stance, saying on Wednesday that changing Section 230’s liability protections would “mean less speech of all kinds appearing online.”

Section 230 won’t change tomorrow, if it changes at all. But a series of seemingly coordinated attacks from two of the three branches of government certainly shows some momentum toward the possibility of change.”